Too much winter? Cold and snow help, even hinder outdoor sales

It was an overall, strong holiday season, but find out why January sales lagged at outdoor retail.
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No more blaming lagging sales on a lack of cold and snow, unless you live on the West Coast.

Despite a slight dip in January sales figures, retailers are riding high off of one of the best winter sales seasons in years. Most storeowners tell SNEWS the continued cold temperatures coupled with plenty of powder kept the cash registers ringing.

“We’re very fortunate this year because we have this wonderful white, fluffy stuff outside,” said Jay Fuerst, who founded Pedigree Ski Shop in Bedford Hills, N.Y. with her husband John back in 1962. “We’ve had so much snow. That’s what our business thrives on: the cold weather and snow.”

Numbers from Leisure Trends, an NPD Group Co., show that outdoor industry sales were up 4 percent across specialty, chain and online venues since last October. Outerwear hit $856 million in retail sales, a 1 percent increase over last year’s October to January stretch. Within the category, insulated tops were the star performer, growing 4 percent in units sold and 13 percent in dollars, boosted in large part by the popularity of lighter-weight down pieces.

“It’s been so cold and windy and snowy that people have just been buying like crazy,” said Hilary Mitchell, assistant manager and footwear buyer for The Base Camp in Billings, Mont. She guesses that their numbers are up 10 to 15 percent compared to last year. “This year has definitely seen a pretty drastic increase from the past couple where it’s been much milder.”

But, can all that cold and snow be too much of a good thing? Both Leisure Trends, and OIA VantagePoint reported a surprising drop in outdoor sales for January 2014 — down 6 percent according to Leisure Trends, and down 2.4 percent, according to OIA, which partners with SportsOneSource for its data. The extreme cold and snow actually kept people from shopping, officials said.

“We’ve had to close the store more times this winter than we ever have,” said Kristy McComas, a partner with Wilderness Adventure in Staunton, Va. She noted that the shop has shut its doors once per month since the beginning of the year, “thankfully” all on weekdays.

Brands pushing break dates back to the end of January — preventing retailers from putting items on sale in the middle of the month — didn’t help either. And depleted inventories — small to begin with thanks to gun-shy ordering a year ago coupled with strong December sales — also seem to have curtailed business to kickoff 2014.

Leisure Trends’ data show that online sales took the hardest hit in January, falling 13 percent in units sold and 12 percent in dollars to finish January with $135 million in sales. Chains fell 10 percent in both units and dollars to end with $146 million in sales. Specialty stores held it together however, remaining even in dollars with $225 million at the registers, though units slid 5 percent.

Noah Osbourne, manager at Earths Edge in Grand Haven, Mich. pointed out that while their store has seen “one of the best (winter seasons) we’ve had in 20 years,” the transition in seasons does generally mean a slower month. "In our industry, or in retail in general, after the holidays, winter is pretty much over. We start getting spring stuff in,” he said. Still, having “had another three months of extreme winter and cold … helps us push a lot more of our leftover product (out the door).”

All of that should music to the ears of outdoor manufacturers next winter, when retailers, for likely the first time in two years, will be hungry for cold-weather goods to refill the shelves.

Where were the highlights in January? Hardgoods — clawing its way back from the beating it took the past two winters — was the sole positive performer in month, according to OIA. And Leisure Trends’ data showed a boost in accessory sales at specialty retail with handwear up 8 percent and 15 percent, hats up 9 percent and 14 percent and socks up 6 percent and 10 percent in units sold and dollars spent respectively, according to Leisure Trends.

“The normal, bitty stuff that always goes has been extra ‘go’ this year with the weather,” said Lead Manager of Little Mountain LTD in Mentor, Ohio, Andrew Chesler.

While the spirits in many locales have been buoyed by the snow and cold, the West Coast has been watching and waiting for a winter that just hasn’t come. California and Oregon especially, and to some extent Washington, have taken “massive, massive hits for snowsports products,” Leisure Trends Senior Retail Analyst Scott Jaeger said.

Retailers there know that all too well.

“It’s an unmitigated disaster. I’ve been doing this for 32 years, and I’ve never seen it like this,” said Matt Smith, owner of Chico Sports Ltd in Chico, Calif. “Right now all our emphasis is on running and cycling and yoga.” He adds that the shop has roughly 70 percent of the inventory that they started the year off with. Snow gear has been marked down 20-to-50 percent and there’s still “very little movement.”

A small silver lining for dual season stores: bikes have been flying off the shelves.

“At least we have bikes. I feel sorry for the people who aren’t diverse,” Smith said. “I’m sure there will be a ton of them going out of business.”

That, or perhaps they can find some willing buyers out east.

--Courtney Holden

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